Even before she was born, Vanessa Wong Wai-yin was destined to be a pianist.
The 18-year-old bachelor of music student at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) recalls her first experience of the instrument that is now her life.
"I always feel the piano chose me. My mother used to play the piano during her pregnancy, so this was my pre-natal education. When I was about two years old, I learned how to climb and, according to my mother, I always headed for the piano stool." By four, Wong learned the rudiments of music; and at five, she joined the Junior programme at the APA.
Subsequently, the young musician-in-the-making entered many local competitions and always did well, never seeming to suffer from stage fright. "I loved the piano and would practise for about two hours a day. Otherwise, I felt really bad. That was my life after school."
As a student at St Mary's Canossian College, an all-girls school, Wong struggled to keep up with her peers. At the end of Form Three, she enrolled at the HKAPA as a full-time student, while continuing to study on her own to achieve the minimum five passes in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education, to enable her to graduate with a bachelor of music degree.
"My parents were very supportive... Hong Kong schools expect students to work very hard, but schoolwork never came naturally to me. And I never had any ambition other than to be a pianist," she says.
Wong's career choice was reinforced in October when she won first prize in the 2011 Southern Highlands International Piano Competition in Mittagong in New South Wales, Australia. She was the youngest-ever entrant, competing against 60 other aspiring pianists.
The 12-day biennial event involved four rounds. Wong's playing of Chopin's First Piano Concerto captivated the jury and won her the first prize. She was also joint winner of another section of the competition for best performer of two Chopin etudes. Her prize money is a substantial A$20,000 (about HK$159,000), and even more importantly, the award includes a number of opportunities to give international performances.
A seasoned competitor who has won in many parts of the world over the past six years, Wong regards the Southern Highlands competition as a major milestone - her first award as an adult. "[Winning] is always good, but it is the experience that I value more than anything," she says.
Successful though she already is, Wong is mature enough to know that she still has a long way to go. Professor Gabriel Kwok, her teacher and the head of keyboard studies at the HKAPA, describes her as "a marvellous pianist with great character and musicality. She is very hard-working, determined and self-driven."
After she graduates from the HKAPA at the end of the next academic year, Wong hopes to enrol in a master's programme. "I'm aiming at the US because there are so many opportunities, very good schools and good teachers. I am thinking of Yale or Juilliard," she says.
Conventional schoolwork might be over for her, but Wong still needs to study music theory and history as part of her course. Her daily practice routine and revision leaves her little spare time, but she does enjoy reading and watching movies.
"When I was young, I enjoyed history and liked to read about the lives of famous people. Nowadays, I still read some history, but also all kinds of fiction. When it comes to choosing a movie, I watch anything. These are all ways to broaden my imagination. You can't just play the piano - you need a wider horizon to be able to understand the music."
The piano can be a solitary instrument, but Wong enjoys all opportunities to collaborate with other musicians, playing a concerto with an orchestra or chamber music which enables her to share music with friends. She works mostly with string players rather than singers.
Looking ahead, Wong says she hopes to enter more competitions and to be able to give more concerts after she completes her master's degree.
"I would love to come back to Hong Kong, perhaps to the HKAPA. I'd like to use my energy and ability to help the young to appreciate music," she says.
"If other young musicians were to ask for my advice, I would tell them to strive for their dreams. Don't give up too easily. Life as a musician is tough physically and psychologically," she says. "Every musician has to learn to cope with the demands of travel. But when you share the music with an audience, it's worthwhile. You learn music to share it with others."